Friday, February 08, 2013

EU regulation: let them eat horse

As the horsemeat scandal enters its second month, and seems to be intensifying rather than fading, not a few people are asking how it is possible that such huge quantities of burgers and other meat products could end up contaminated. After all, horse meat has a very obvious smell, different colouration and fat conformation, and surely would be recognisable to anyone making the products. 

While this would most certainly be true in the domestic kitchen, what people do not always appreciate is that things are very different on the industrial scale. The quantities are so huge and the speed of processing so high, that it is impossible to check all the ingredients going through the system.

What is more, even lines which predominantly use chilled meat will also use a proportion of frozen blocks, at anything up to 25kg weight, which - as graphically illustrated by the video above - is used without defrosting. And in that state, the people handling it will have no idea what it actually is.

The insertion of frozen meat into the process is in fact vital to keep the mix temperature down – otherwise, the cutting, grinding and mixing will overheat the meat and lead to undesirable changes. Thus insisting only on the use of chilled meat, and perhaps running an inspection belt, is not a practical option.

Thus, the detection of product contamination, especially cross-species substitution (either accidental or by way of deliberate fraud), requires a pre-production checking regime, possibly augmented by post-production sampling, at the pre-delivery stage and throughout the distribution chain, right up to point of sale, with laboratory testing for rogue proteins.

However, since the food scares of the late 1980s and '90s, we have seen a sea-change in regulation, both in scale and type, with the introduction of predictive control system, known generically as Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) and paperwork auditing.

HACCP in particular, has been adopted with enthusiasm by the EU and incorporated into basic Food Safety Regulations, as the primary mechanism of control.

The knock-on effect of this is that both physical checks during processing have been scaled down, with greater reliance of the paperwork trail, while regulatory visits tend to focus more on determining whether HACCP regimes are in place, with extensive paperwork audits, rather then on physical inspections.

Under these regimes, it is not unknown for official inspectors to carry out their work without ever leaving the offices of the companies they are visiting, while end product testing also has been progressively abandoned, in favour of cheaper paperwork audits. That has been matched by reductions in regulatory manpower and testing budgets.

Another development has been the introduction of the "Due Diligence" defence into food law, where retailer can claim immunity from prosecution provided they can show they have taken "reasonable precautions" to ensure the safety of the food and its conformity with relevant standards.

This is achieved by insisting on a rigorous paper-chain from their suppliers, all attesting that necessary checks have been made, and systems maintained. When it comes to packaged, processed products such as frozen burgers, the supermarkets have used this to such effect that they can effectively absolve themselves of any responsibility for food standards.

However, no one with any deep knowledge in the system can have any confidence in it. Paperwork and sundry records – and even official stamps, so beloved of the EU – can easily be forged or doctored, more so since the advent of computers and high-tech printers.

And, where the value of a product is entirely dependent on its labelling and its paperwork, fraud is an inevitable consequence. That is why, to this day, there is more home-grown organic chicken sold in London than is produced in the entire UK.

Here lies the central deception in the system. Most people in the business know it is flawed, but no one will rock the boat. The supermarkets operate what is known as "plausible deniability". As long as they have the paperwork to say they are in the clear, they are happy. And if the supermarkets are happy, everybody else is happy.

But it is into this uncontrolled space that it appears the criminals have moved in and flourished. Actually, the criminals were always there, but with the centralisation of the meat inspection service, and its detachment from the local authority base, the intelligence network has broken down, marking the final degradation of the food surveillance system.

As a result, in the early 21st Century, food standards are probably less well-policed than they have been for the bulk of the second half of the last century. And, since food safety and food standards are exclusive EU competences, there is no immediate (or any) chance of improvement.

There are too many vested interests to permit change, and the last thing the EU is ever going to do is admit that it got it wrong. Thus, for us mere plebs, the word from Brussels is stark and simple: "let them eat horse".